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Opinion: How Schools Must Respond to Affirmative Action Ban

4 mins read

On June 29, the Supreme Court ruled that both Harvard and the University of North Carolina could no longer take race into account as a factor in admissions. Since then, selective schools across the country have released statements saying that even though they can no longer use race-conscious affirmative action, they will continue to prioritize greater diversity at their institutions by increasing emphasis on essays describing the adversity applicants have faced. However, wealthy students can easily find workarounds for such a subjective standard and it would be difficult to make sure admissions are actually increasing campus diversity. Selective colleges must also employ race-neutral affirmative action strategies to ensure that quotas that indirectly promote racial diversity are being met.

Schools should not only eliminate legacy, but give preference to applicants without it. They should also create quotas based on students’ socioeconomic status and the high schools they attended. Such limited numbers would clearly fail to capture all the nuances of a single applicant’s experiences, but are the only way to truly hold universities accountable for increasing socioeconomic diversity.

Such limited numbers would clearly fail to capture all the nuances of a single applicant’s experiences, but are the only way to truly hold universities accountable for increasing socioeconomic diversity.

In the court’s decision, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise,” but cautioned schools against using essays or other methods to indirectly determine an applicant’s race. 

This leaves schools susceptible to lawsuits if they ask applicants to write essays describing a community they’re a part of–a strategy that many schools are now employing–because this would allow colleges to indirectly determine an applicant’s race. However, it also opens a pathway for them to use affirmative action strategies based on applicants’ socio-economic status which could indirectly increase the overall racial diversity of a campus.

Since Roberts explicitly allowed for the consideration of “discussion” of adversity and was more vague about other measures of adversity such as an applicant’s socioeconomic status, legacy status, or the high school they attended, most schools say they’re planning on emphasizing essays discussing adversity rather than more objective criteria like race.

However, essays and other subjective measures can only go so far to increase campus diversity. After affirmative action was banned for California’s public universities in 1996, selective schools such as UC Berkeley and UCLA have employed several strategies to attempt to increase campus diversity. While their efforts to expand outreach programs, take a more holistic approach to admissions, and eliminate standardized test scores, among other things, have increased racial diversity on campus, the schools have failed to return to the levels of diversity they had before the ban.

UC Davis Medical School, on the other hand, which uses a socioeconomic disadvantage scale to more objectively evaluate applicants, is one of the most diverse medical schools in the nation with 47% of the class of 2026 being BIPOC students (compared to 26% at UC Berkeley and 27% at UCLA). The scale gives a higher score to students who have a lower family income, are from a less wealthy area, or are the first-generation in their family to attend college. It gives any student who has a parent that’s a doctor a zero.

Using these more objective metrics will likely do more to increase diversity than forcing students to write essays about difficult topics that they might not feel comfortable discussing or about issues they might assume every other students also faces.

Using these more objective metrics will likely do more to increase diversity than forcing students to write essays about difficult topics that they might not feel comfortable discussing or about issues they might assume every other students also faces. It would also be much easier for wealthy students to exaggerate the adversity they’ve faced than to lie about what high school they attended or their parents’ annual income.

If an applicant wants to discuss the adversity they’ve faced in an essay, colleges should allow them to do so, but they should also employ other methods to enhance campus diversity so that BIPOC students don’t feel like they have to.

Admitting more low-income students won’t directly increase colleges’ racial diversity. A 2015 study simulating an affirmative action policy based on socioeconomic status found that it’s nowhere near as effective at increasing racial diversity as race-conscious admissions policies. However, the study also found that it has some impact, so race-blind affirmative action strategies would help increase a school’s diversity in several ways.

Some wealthier students might complain that affirmative action based on socio-economic status is unfair and makes it harder for them to get into college, but college applications are designed in such a way that they already favor these applicants. Wealthy students often have more time for extracurriculars and to study for their classes and attend schools where they have access to more advanced classes.

And while some might argue that admissions at selective colleges are too elitist by definition to ever be truly equitable and that they are only a small part of a much larger system, schools still have a responsibility to be constantly working on making admissions more equitable. After all, the graduates of these institutions are the ones who end up in places like the Supreme Court where they are given the power to either reinforce or dismantle systems that affect inequality throughout the rest of the country.

Cleo is a senior in her third year of journalism. She enjoys writing about issues impacting the M-A community, particularly environmental issues. She is also on the M-A cross-country and track teams.

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